Now Reading
From white water rafting to a white-knuckle ride for gay equality in the Balkans

From white water rafting to a white-knuckle ride for gay equality in the Balkans

Monday morning and we are back on the road. We head deep into the mountains. The area is breathtaking.

Peaks reach for the sky, while valleys plummet to oblivion, cradling local villages. The autumnal forest is a patchwork, in full glory with leaves from seasonal golden yellows to rich reds.

We arrive outside the town Konjic and are reaquainted with the Neretva River for a spot of white water rafting. We’re all eager to get going but are treated first to a traditional breakfast of breads, eggs and ajvar, a delicious homemade smoked garlic and red pepper spread.

Kitted up in wetsuits, helmets and water-friendly shoes, we’re off on that drive that I mentioned in my last article.

The unexpected can always be scary, and as we set adrift along the river there’s an air of anxious anticipation married with excitement. But any fears are soon laid to rest.

The mountain and gorge scenery is picture postcard perfect. We dodge rocks, dips and some racy moments in the foam to get back safely. Now officially an adrenaline junkie, I’m addicted, despite being accused of some gay ‘lily dipping’ by Bruce. Remember, ‘deep and broad strokes boys’!

Some 23km and two-and-half hours later we get to shore, dry off and are treated to a buffet lunch of local specialties including meat and cheese versions of burek, or pie. Stuffed to the gills and it’s off to Sarajevo. En route Mustafa drops a second bombshell.

Tomorrow is to be Eid – a major Muslim holiday equivalent to Christmas. Our tour of the city, planned for the following day, could be off. But even more disappointingly, our trip to the town of Srebrenica (one of the highlights of the trip) for the day after is off too.

We’re distraught. The travel company has obviously known about this for months but hasn’t warned us in advance.

We approach the capital and are greeted by modern tower blocks and shopping malls as we enter via the commercial centre before heading to the old town in the eastern side of the city. Our home for the next two night is the Hostel City Centre. Compared to our accommodation in Mostar it’s a palace – modern and spotless – and after ditching our bags we set out to explore.

Sarajevo is not a destination for major sights. It doesn’t have a Eiffel Tower, Brandenburg Gate or Big Ben, but it still has sites of world importance. Take the rather unassuming Princip Bridge for example and it’s connection with Franz Ferdinand. No, not the band. This is river crossing where world history was changed.

While driving through the city streets on the morning Sunday, 28 June 1914, Auchduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro Hungarian Empire and and his wife were shot and killed by Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of assassins. The incident led to a chain of events that eventually triggered the First World War. There’s a small exhibition dedicated to this event, where you can see the assassin’s gun and other paraphernalia but that’s about it for the Museum Sarajevo 1878 – 1918

Naturally, as a gay traveller, I’ve done my research into the local haunts. But for a city with around 500,000 residents there appears to be no visible bars or clubs after searching extensively online.

But what I do find is that there have been public and open attacks on gay gatherings. The launch of the Sarajevo Queer Festival in 2008 had to be cancelled after being inflamed by the media and hundreds turning out to protest.

Meanwhile in March this year, seven members of the local gay rights organisation, Okvir (meaning ‘the frame’) were attacked in the city centre by a group of young men twice their number.

Over a coffee, organisation member, Azra, tells me that there has just been another attack on the group. On October 11 a press conference was held to launch a digital lives project highlighting the work of gay activists across Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The event was interrupted by a group of young males, issuing the threat, ‘You faggots! This is not a tolerant city, this is city of the normal people, and you are not normal! This is the last time you do something like this, this is the last time we leave in peace, mark my words!’ A report was filed with the police, but there is still little hope of action being taken.

I’m told that today’s situation is a result of the war. During the conflict gender roles were reinforced – men butched up and fought while women became more domesticated.

Azra tells me that nationalism is on the rise and there is a lot of anger on the streets. So if women want to butch up too these days, that’s OK. But woe betide a men being an out-and-out sissie.

Despite these difficulties, Okvir (formed in June 2011) remains committed to its work and as a result of the current climate, the group seems to primarily consist of a small group of lesbians in their early-20s.

In fact, Sarajevo seems to be a very out lesbian city. Butch and punky girls are easy to spot on the street while obviously out gay men seem non-existent.

There’s no doubting that the group’s intentions are well-placed but in some ways their approach seems confused. They organise non-offensive creative writing, drama and poetry classes. Unfortunately these can’t be openly pre-promoted to avoid sabotage by protesters. So events are only reviewed after they have taken place

But Okvir is also is responsible for plastering the city centre in graffiti proclaiming ‘Qeer (sic) revolt’ married with anarchist symbolism. While the graffiti suggests the organisation is a radical operation, in reality that’s not the case. It’s definitely hung up on the politics of gay rights and equality, but still operates rather anonymously.